1. For Black History Month today, I watched The Pursuit of Happyness, a 2006 film starring Will Smith and his son, Jaden. Will Smith played Chris Gardner, whom wikipedia describes as “on-and-off-homeless salesman-turned stockbroker.” And Jaden plays Chris’ young son, Christopher, Jr., whom Chris is raising through his ups and downs.
I was hoping to end my viewing of Black History movies on a positive note, with a movie that didn’t focus on the harsh realities of racial discrimination. But I forgot how stressful this movie can be to watch! One bad thing after another happens to Chris Gardner. He’s doing all right, and, the next thing you know, he has to pay money for parking tickets and spend the night in jail waiting for his check to clear, although he has an important interview the next morning at Dean Witter. Or he gets run over and loses his shoe. Or one of the bone machines he needs to sell breaks down. Or he has to take care of somebody’s car, even though he has to be at an important meeting in twenty minutes. On one of the Special Features, there’s a documentary about the real Chris Gardner, and it said that Chris couldn’t watch some of the scenes because they brought back painful memories for him. I understand why he’d rather forget certain things!
But the pain that Chris goes through made me root for him, and his character on the movie wasn’t the only one with tears in his eyes when he was offered a job as a stockbroker!
I like the movie because of its rags-to-riches story; its message of not giving up on your dream, regardless of what people say or what happens to you; and its theme of pursuing happiness. But, in an interview on the Special Features, the real Chris Gardner says that these aren’t even the most important lessons of the movie. For him, the most important theme is family—that he was there for his son through all of his ordeals.
Also, Chris was not bragging about his rags-to-riches story. Although I had to admire his wits, his intelligence, and his social skills, which helped him get through his problems and achieve success, I like him even more because he acknowledges that he didn’t make his journey alone, without help. The real Chris Gardner insisted that the minister who ran the homeless shelter where he and his son stayed be granted a role on the movie, for, without him, “there’d be no Chris Gardner.” And Chris has put time and energy into helping others succeed. As Joel Osteen would say (and he’s referred to this movie before), Chris doesn’t just have contacts who help him rise to the top; he also takes the time to be a contact for others.
2. I started Louis Feldman’s Josephus’s Interpretation of the Bible. On pages 6-7, Feldman discusses tragic history, which he contends was common among the Greeks. For Feldman, many Greeks composed their histories to arouse emotions of pity and terror, as well as to convey moral lessons. I’m not sure if “tragedy” implies that the histories had a tragic ending. Perhaps it means that the histories covered tragic events. Feldman mentions Phylarchus’ account of Themistocles’ funeral.
I was one time discussing the Gospels with two Jewish people, a professor and a student. The professor told me that the Gospels were contrived—that Jesus appears good in them because their authors made him look that way. I replied that the Gospels also present Jesus doing some pretty embarrassing things, which they wouldn’t do if their aim were to create an unhistorical whitewash. For me, the embarrassing details demonstrated the Gospels’ historicity. The example I cited was Jesus’ statement on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The student then responded that Jesus in the Gospels was like a Greek hero, who suffers.
Perhaps the Greeks liked to emphasize heroes who suffered. I remember when I studied Homer’s Iliad in high school, and that was the first place where I heard the term “catharsis.”
And, during Black History Month, I’ve watched histories that have plenty of tragic moments. Roots. Roots: The Next Generation. The Jesse Owens Story. Men of Honor. The Pursuit of Happyness. People suffer. Sometimes, they succeed. Sometimes, they don’t. But they go down fighting—each in his or her own way. And perhaps their heroism lies not in whether they triumph or not, but in the fact that they keep going on.
3. In Psalms II: 51-100, I read Mitchell Dahood’s comments on Psalm 99. On page 368, Dahood says, “The psalmist states the reason why earth and all nations should cringe before Yahweh; even Mount Zion cannot contain his cosmic power.”
It’s good for me to be reminded of the glory of God in the course of my studies.
4. I was a little confused by my reading today of Theodore Mullen’s Assembly of the Gods. El was the high god of the pantheon in Ugaritic literature, whereas Baal was a lower deity who ruled the cosmos after his defeat of Yam, the chaotic sea. Mullen says that Baal defeating the sea was connected in some way with creation (13), for the two things are associated with each other throughout the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern literature: a god defeats chaos, then he creates the cosmos. Yet, Mullen cites texts in which El is called the creator, and El doesn’t really fight battles, even though he may help warriors every now and then. El appears to be above the fray (though I wouldn’t bet my life on this claim), for the chaotic Yam is called “the beloved of El.” At the same time, El’s called a bull, which “carries militaristic implications” (30).
Mullen refers to Philo of Byblos (first-second centuries C.E.), whose description of Phoenician religion often corresponds with ancient Ugaritic texts. Philo has a story in which El (called Kronos) attains kingship after waging war with his father, Ouranos, in an attempt to avenge his mother, Ge. El then castrates his father, “casts his brother into the underworld, sacrifices his son, and marries his sister” (33).
That overlaps with my reading of H.I. Marrou’s A History of Education in Antiquity. Marrous states on page 10:
The moral ideal [in Homer] was rather complicated. There is first of all the “cunning” type of person [who has] the art of knowing how to get out of any awkward situation! Our conscience, refined by centuries of Christianity, sometimes feels a slight uneasiness about this—think how complaisant [the goddess] Athena is, for example, when one of her dear Ulysses’ lies turns out to be particularly successful.
So the Greek gods don’t always live up to our Christian expectations! This quote stood out to me because of Ken Pulliam’s recent discussions of the biblical Conquest stories (for the latest post, see Grasping at Straws Part Five–Evangelicals Defend Genocide), in which God commands the slaughter of Canaanite children. In this case, the Bible appears to fall short of our moral sensibilities.
Moreover, could it be that the stories about Abraham lying to save his own skin—in the wife-sister stories of Genesis 12 and 20—are examples of his “cunning” ability to get out of situations. He keeps on lying, so he mustn’t think that it’s wrong in those cases! At the same time, God’s the one who bails Abraham out, who rescues the mother of many nations, Sarah, from becoming another man’s woman. So perhaps Abraham’s strategy didn’t work. Maybe he should’ve trusted God to protect him.
Marrou had other interesting points about Homer. On page 4, he mentions “a fascinating, far-off past, when not only gods but beasts could speak.” This reminds me of the Bible’s story about Eden, in which the serpent talks (which doesn’t seem to surprise Eve), and God speaks directly to humanity. In Antiquities 1:41, Josephus appears to suggest that animals before the Fall could speak. And, on page 5, Marrou refers to Patroclus, who “came to seek refuge at the court of Phthia, fleeing from Opontus, his fatherland, after accidentally killing someone.” That calls to mind the biblical laws about cities of refuge for those who accidentally kill a person (Numbers 35).
5. At Latin mass this morning, philosopher priest spoke against homosexuality. He said that we wouldn’t be tolerant of a bank-robber, so why should we embrace homosexuality? He also said that pedophilia is practically the only sexual sin that society acknowledges as such, whereas it has accepted sex outside of marriage, adultery, and (now) homosexuality. Moreover, he states that homosexuality is a selfish act. For him, sex is intended for procreation, which is others-oriented, since it implies the establishment and maintenance of a family. But homosexuals cannot procreate. And the priest said that using contraception in sex is as bad as homosexuality, since it too seeks sex without procreation.
If an evangelical was fire-breathing this message, I’d probably walk out of the service, but I can tolerate it from philosopher priest, who sounds so methodical and low-key (yet high church).
It’s interesting that I heard this sermon today, for homosexuality has been on my mind as of late. It seems as if it’s all over the place in the media, as if there’s a push for us to accept it as normal. Katherine on Desperate Housewives is flirting with homosexuality. And, on Friday’s Ghost Whisperer, we think that a man had an affair with a woman, until we learn that the man’s wife had the affair with her.
About a decade ago, controversy erupted when men kissed men or women kissed women on popular programs. Now, there are gay couples on television. But they’re usually the minority, as most characters are heterosexual. What concerns me about Katherine on Desperate Housewives is that she’s coming close to breaking another barrier. Characters on TV are already on-the-make for sexual partners of the opposite sex, as was Katherine, up to this point. But why not be on-the-make for sexual partners of the same sex? Do you see my concern? We’re basically being told that we should be able to sleep with anyone who is willing—that we should feel free to explore sex: same sex, opposite sex, it doesn’t matter.
I don’t agree with everything that the priest said this morning. Sex is not only about procreation, for it’s also about intimacy between two people. It should be “making love,” whether children come out of it, or not. Homosexuals can do this, as can heterosexuals, so the homosexual act doesn’t have to be selfish. I’d say that promiscuity—the divorce of sex from love—is where the selfishness lies.
I’d like for society to become accepting of different people, but I’m also concerned that we’re becoming a moral cesspool.